Friday 29 April 2011

Dragon’s Day

A researcher from the city travels to a backward mountain village, where he learns of the old custom – ‘going back maybe even to pagan times’ – of Dragon’s Day, which involves a handsome young lad and a pretty maiden being ‘thrown to the dragon who lives in a cave by the river’. He happens to be there on the very day of the ceremony, and witnesses the whole thing: the boy whose brow is ‘furrowed by a deep horizontal frown’ and whose ‘jaw trembled’, the girl who is ‘dressed in a silk dress and high-heeled shoes’. The dragon itself is ‘an old, blind, mouldy beast’. At the end, ‘The chairman intoned a song. People sang lazily, in fact no one even bothered to sing the last words. The crowd began to disperse.’

Just thought I’d mention it. The story (like the quote in the last post) is in Andrzej Bursa’s Killing Auntie and Other Work, translated by Wiesiek Powaga, published by CBe a year ago. And now I’m off to my allotment.

Thursday 21 April 2011

‘I may even get a grant /

If I get to know the right people’ – from Andrzej Bursa’s poem ‘I’d Like to Be a Poet’ (in Killing Auntie and Other Work). The poem doesn’t end happily (‘always searching and always stuck’). But though the Arts Council funding cuts have hit some of the poetry publishers hard (and I don't forget those who never had any funding to begin with, for whom hardness is a way of life), I’m not talking, yet, about endings. I’m talking about the book-fair idea.

Yesterday I found a hall I liked, run by a nice woman with a chocolate-brown labrador dog, and booked it for a date in September. Today some of the publishers have been saying yes, they’d like to join in. They’re an awkward bunch. Independent-minded (that’s the point of what they’re doing). Not best known for cooperation and the milk of human kindness (the margins are too tight for much of that). The work that any one of them publishes may not be at all to the taste of many of the others. So even getting them to share a room will be an achievement of sorts. (Like a wedding party where those relatives turn up who fell out decades ago and don’t speak to each other? A little bit.) Getting some books sold (this is about survival) will be even better. And though we’ll use the mailing lists (I’m getting there, slowly), preaching to the converted is tedious, so we’ll try to get some of the unconverted in there too. And there seems to be a strong possibility that the camp will move on . . . More later.

(See that slash, by the way, in the heading? It’s a line break. People will lose jobs, and some of them I know; poems, fewer of them, will go on getting written, chosen, published, read; all of this hurts; we deal with this.)

And I’ve been playing today – possible designs for flyers, posters (I, with publisher’s hat on, never really feel I have a handle on anything until I have an idea, a rough idea, of how it will look). And Antonia Byatt at the Arts Council replied to my email about the literature cuts (a heart-felt but pompous thing, telling them they’d betrayed the purpose for their existence), which was good of her, but she doesn’t know what she’s started: I’ve replied to her reply. And I’ve been thinking of possible quotes. Satire, no-holds-barred satire, written by anonymous (I proposed to Faber, once, an anthology of poems by anonymous, but that’s another story) . . . In Geoffrey Grigson’s Unrespectable Verse I stumbled upon (it brings me up short, every time) Marianne Moore’s ‘Poetry’ (slashes to indicate line breaks again, because I don’t trust this platform, any more than I'd trust Kindle or other e-formats, to get the indents right):
I, too, dislike it. / Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in / it, after all, a place for the genuine.

Thursday 14 April 2011

Fine words

There is a lot of material on the Arts Council of England website. Not just the mission-statement stuff (‘Arts Council England works to get great art to everyone by championing, developing and investing in artistic experiences that enrich people’s lives’) and the topical stuff (‘a transformational Olympics opportunity’) and some literature priorities (‘Our role in relation to production is to focus on areas that are not commercially viable, such as contemporary poetry and literary translation’) and a press release on the recent funding decisions (‘In making its decisions, the Arts Council has endeavoured to support and protect . . . poetry, new writers and literature in translation (eg Faber and Faber; Arvon Foundation)’). There is also a 47-page ‘review of research and literature to inform the Arts Council’s 10-year strategic framework’, whose 5 pages of references include a report on ‘UK Music Industry Greenhouse Gas Emissions for 2007’. There are probably enough statistics to argue any case you want. You could get lost in there.

For at least the past decade, mainstream publishers have been narrowing down: taking fewer risks, offering fewer openings to new or neglected talent. A number of the ACE cuts – the PBS, Arc, Enitharmon, Flambard and certain others – abet and collude with this process. If one of the purposes of ACE is to offset the effects of purely commercial interests on the distribution of literature, and to enable good work of minority interest to thrive, then these cuts betray that purpose.

There are ways to respond. For example, a book fair that brings together some of the independent poetry presses. Anyone interested, get in touch.

Saturday 9 April 2011

‘Erotically polymorphous’, etc

How do you get reviewers to write about a book even before it is published? It helps if large chunks of the book (in this case, Jonathan Barrow’s The Queue) are quoted in another book (in this case, Andrew Barrow’s Animal Magic, his memoir of his brother, the author of The Queue, published by Cape in February). From reviews of AM, here are some words and phrases about The Queue: ‘Wildly inventive and surreal . . . erotically polymorphous . . . bizarre and beautiful . . . darkly comic . . . macabre . . . fantastical . . . savagely surreal . . . apocalyptically violent . . . scabrous . . . a thin line between brilliance and total barminess . . . slightly irritating’. Names invoked include Evelyn Waugh, Joe Orton, Mervyn Peake. Richard Canning in the Independent: ‘No stranger book than [Animal Magic] will appear this year – with the possible exception of Andrew Barrow’s deceased brother Jonathan’s novel The Queue, which sees publication in May, after more than 40 years of neglect.’

Expanded quotes are on the CBe website page for The Queue – which is available NOW from that page.

Thursday 7 April 2011

Changing the subject: fiction

On Saturday I’m going to an event at the Free Word Centre at which Gabriel Josipovici, Geoff Dyer and Dubravka Ugresic (whose Thank You for Not Reading, 2003, was, the blurb rightly says, ‘a biting critique of book publishing’; many of the idiocies it describes are now accepted with a shrug as the norm) will discuss the novel.

Readers from the poetry planet (the focus of the last post) should know that the fiction planet is inhabited by just as many factions as their own. Devotees of Kafka, Beckett, Bernhard tend to find McEwan, Barnes, Amis unreadable, and vice versa. There are many other positions (nostalgists, reconnaissance parties, etc). In which camp does CBe pitch its tent? I’ve never been much good at putting up tents. On the one hand, I did recently read a McEwan and found it writing-by-numbers, a waste of my time. On the other hand, there are some writers just about within the mainstream (Penelope Fitzgerald, James Salter, James Kennaway) I worship.

Meanwhile, for a terrific interview with a writer whose recent book was billed by the publisher as a memoir ‘but increasingly I’d be just as happy to call it a book, and let the reader decide, or better yet, not decide’, go to John Self’s Asylum.

PS. Readers of the CBe edition of Francis Ponge, Unfinished Ode to Mud, trans. Beverley Bie Brahic, may like a Kleinzahler poem in the current LRB in which Ponge (‘lapsed surrealist, champion of the apple / in all its appleness, and so on’) watches a Bugs Bunny video.

Monday 4 April 2011

The cuts

Bless them, and god save them. I mean the Poetry Book Society and the Poetry Trust. Both organisations – the PBS through their seasonal recommendations, the PT through their Aldeburgh first-collection prize and invitations to read at the Aldeburgh festival – have done far more to enable the books I publish to gain readers than the Arts Council (of England; ACE) has ever done. Without them, life will be harder. Without them, the job of spreading the word about poetry books of quality will be even more monopolised by the publicity and marketing departments of the bigger publishers. I am dumbstruck (obviously not literally) by the slashing of their funding. And I’m angry too about the slash to Arc, more dedicated and more adventurous than we deserve.

There’s been a buzz of anger, analysis, comment, on Facebook and other forums, about the poetry cuts. The poets’ world – I generalise – is a vociferous, inbred subculture, the Habsburgs without the power or wealth, and when it hits the news all the factions parade; this is one of the things that puts me off, the lack of generosity, and of interest in writing outside their chosen territory, but it comes perhaps from always having to fight from a tight corner.

On the other hand. I spoke the other day with a writer who’d been sent an email asking him to sign something in support of the PBS, and he knew nothing about why he’d been asked; he’d been getting on with his writing; often he’s without paid employment, and the jobs he does get are minimally paid; and he’ll sign but he’s ambivalent. Why should publishers and administrators be publicly funded? Writers starve in garrets, duck and dive, why (I’m on my own here, not voicing him) shouldn’t publishers? The phrase ‘dependency culture’ gets used. The arguments are obvious: in a consumer, profit-led culture, minority interests need a leg up, and if my man writes well and his work deserves more than tucking under the mattress, even if only a few hundred readers are going to enjoy it, then some help is needed; and I’d like to believe that the society I’m part of values good writing enough to pay it a bit more than lip-service. But I do share his ambivalence. The whole point of writing is independence and subversion. Taking the tax-payer’s coin is compromising.

On the third hand, it’s the end of the financial year, and I’ve been totting up figures. Not bad, not good. Not even a token gesture towards what I could earn a living from, the authors neither, but just about enough – that tricky line – for me to kid myself that this addiction is worth continuing (and in the past few weeks I’ve committed to two books I’d go to the wall for). And I’m indecently proud of the books I’ve published (among them, Josipovici, David Markson, Christopher Reid, Francis Ponge, a couple of first-book poets out of nowhere who both got PBS recommendations; check the website). But – isn’t this considered a barrier, something hard to to admit to? – I too need help. I can write, edit, design, typeset, and occasionally schmooze, but I can’t sell these books in the numbers they deserve. Give me money, give me expertise; talk to me.

There are fourth hands and fifth hands and onwards. This isn’t binary. It’s about writing, and reading too, and that strange thing called publishing, strange because it’s conflicted, always mediating between the intimacy of the writer’s desk and the hullabaloo of the marketplace, and how these things are part – and, yes, are enabled to be part, but this doesn’t have to be the binary thing of getting or not getting ACE funding – of the lives we choose to live.

Golly, it’s Monday already, and today the PBS meets with ACE. If I were picking teams for any such argument, I’d claim George Szirtes first – grounded, articulate, passionate. Alan Davey, the ACE chief exec, doesn’t stand a chance. But the purse strings are in his clammy hands.

Friday 1 April 2011

The good news

1) The two spring CBe titles are now available from the website: Nancy Gaffield’s Tokaido Road (a Poetry Book Society Recommendation) and Jonathan Barrow’s The Queue (‘A wild picareseque fantasy, erotically polymorphous’ says the Independent on Sunday).

2) Walking home this morning from the post office, I saw my neighbour accepting a delivery of 30 cases of vodka. I live next door to a man who imports vodka.